ILO cut is more than political bias: it’s about ending a rights-based approach to poverty reduction
Although it was only one part of several announcements last week on DFID spending on specific countries and multilateral agencies, DFID’s decision to stop paying additional funds to the International Labour Organisation (DWP will continue to pay the minimum ‘affiliation fee’ all governments have to pay) was given more column inches by both DFID’s Ministers and their opponents than most of the other decisions. DFID Ministers claimed – in pretty robust language which rather undermined their claim to high-minded objectivity – that the ILO is not an effective tool for combating global poverty. Their opponents suggested that they were politically biased against an organisation that is identified with trade unions (although of course you could say with similar justification that the ILO is an employer-based or government-led body.) There are elements of truth in both arguments: but above all, DFID’s decision to stop funding the ILO is further evidence that under the Conservatives, DFID is being transformed from a development body committed to lasting change in the global south into a sticking-plaster aid charity dispensing services to the poor to salve the conscience of the rich – as well as minimising the risk that the poor will rise up and demand change more violently than we would like.
DFID’s official attack on the ILO – Ministers have been more personally offensive about it in the cut and thrust of debate – is based on the argument that it is not effective against poverty:
“does not have a significant impact on the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) because its operations on the ground in developing countries are limited. The ILO also has a wide range of organisational weaknesses including weak cost control, and results reporting, limited transparency and not taking systemic action on evaluation findings.”
As the ILO has pointed out in its own – very measured – response, the suggestion that this is an objective assessment of the whole global organisation is undermined by other independent assessments conducted for DFID under the previous government and by methodological shortcomings in the latest DFID review (which only examined a small sample of the organisation’s work and generalised from that). But the TUC knows that DFID and FCO officials who deal with the ILO have expressed such concerns about the ILO’s internal organisation over many years, and some of those concerns are shared by the TUC.
The TUC response drew attention to what the DFID statement didn’t say, ie how DFID was going to achieve certain key development objectives without using the ILO to do it. But veteran Labour foreign affairs pundit Denis MacShane has no doubt spoken for many in accusing the Conservatives of sheer, unadulterated anti-trade union bias in reaching their conclusions:
“Why does this government hate workers so much? Yesterday, two of the richest men in European politics, the former Lazard banker Andrew Mitchell and the former oil trader Alan Duncan, sat side by side on the Commons front bench smirking with self-satisfaction as they announced a major assault on democratic trade unionism. Tucked away at the end of a rambling statement about changes in Britain’s overseas aid budget was a bombshell. The two millionaires said the UK would cut support to the International Labour Organisation.”
But it’s probably more true to say that the underlying reason for the decision to cut ILO funding is that Conservatives are no longer interested in the way the ILO combats poverty, which is to promote workers’ rights – to join trade unions, to social security, and to decent work. Instead of supporting poor people to demand and enforce their rights, DFID is concentrating on handing out mosquito nets, clean water, and a basic – very basic, given the unit cost Ministers are flaunting – education. There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving poor people a handout, but it sits uneasily with other rhetorical flourishes from Conservative politicians who demand in the UK that people be given ‘a hand up, instead of a hand-out’: there is no more effective ‘hand up’ than the freedom to organise and bargain collectively, the right to decent work and equal treatment, and the freedom from dictatorship that the ILO has provided across the world for decades.
And there is more than a whiff developing that the Tories are doing all this not because they actually want poor people in the global south to control their own lives, just not interfere with ours. Anti-poverty measures might indeed reduce illegal immigration into the UK by making people’s lives less desperate, and a few more crumbs from the rich countries’ tables could well limit the impetus to violence that lies behind the Conservative shift of DFID resources from poverty alleviation to conflict prevention.